In late January I was assigned a strange task. A friend came onto me crassly at a party. This was disappointing, but fine. The strange part came later, when a mutual friend brought the night up to him, and it turned out he’d been blackout drunk the whole time and didn’t remember a thing. Being a person who cares about me and cares about women, he asked me to tell him everything that had taken place between us that night.
In the days leading up to our scheduled meet-up, I pondered what to do. Heavy on my mind in the weeks prior (heavy on my mind still) had been the question: how do women tell stories of sexual violence? How do our narratives shift based on audience, context, objective? My situation with my friend, decidedly far from off from violence or assault, echoed these broader questions and weightier situations, and I was sucked into the microcosm. In this case, I knew there was a particular set of events, a way of reasonably narrating this set of events that would sound benign, and another reasonable narration that would sound like a story of harassment. After all, in every act of storytelling we choose where to skim and where to prolong, where to soften and where to amplify. Should I aim to preserve our friendship, I wondered, or did I have some duty to moralize? A hard facts delivery or describe how it felt? I found myself with this inexplicable chance to actualize the questions I’d been grappling with in the abstract. In this small situation, to this small audience, with these small stakes, I was tasked with constructing a narrative of solely my own design.
What does one say?
Since October, following the news has felt like standing on the floor of a massive stock exchange. Except where you’d expect to see a wild circulation of stocks and bonds, narratives of sexual violence take their place. The exchange is perpetual. The perceived value of these narratives fluctuates greatly, appraised based on the teller (Is she white? Black? Poor? Does she have something to gain? Something to hide?), the mode of delivery (Is it a reputable publication? A tweet? Is it emotionally driven?), and the character of the story itself (Is it severe? Ambiguous? How much does it incriminate the men we love?). It feels sometimes, that amidst the whizzing blur, it’s impossible to reach up and grab a story, open it slowly, and inspect it with the care it deserves. It feels sometimes, that amidst the whizzing blur, you can’t see or hear a thing.
I gather on a couch in October with friends of three months. It has been a tense week. A movie will loosen us, we decide. The #MeToo posts began appearing at the start of the week, and I didn’t know what they were when I saw the first one on my newsfeed, probably because of something about the insularity of life here. But quickly I learned, and I wanted them to stop for the most visceral and self-serving reasons of eye-shielding and self-preservation. Of course they shouldn’t stop. Or of course it was too early to pass judgement on whether they should stop, too early to say how much good they would cumulatively do, in the end.
My friend suggests a movie I’ve heard of when I was younger. A cult classic called Teeth. He says it will be fun. I know the general premise is that there is a girl, and she has teeth in her vagina. The movie turns out to be a series of violent assault scenes, and each assaulter is in turn castrated by the vagina teeth. It has not occurred to my friend or the filmmaker—who is clearly intending this as some kind of feminist parable—why this might be upsetting to watch.
I know that it is not a new objection to condemn gratuitous rape scenes, but I want it to stop, like the posts. This is the same! The same infinite scroll. Of course it’s not the same. Of course there is legitimate merit in holding abusers publicly accountable. But it felt the same. I excuse myself from the movie early and go on Facebook less for the rest of the semester.
I hadn’t thought about what kind of movie might justify these graphic depictions until I watched Jodie Foster in 1988’s “The Accused.” It’s one of the earliest mainstream movies to condemn the rape of a woman who is poor, loud, and likes to have sex. You see the site of her assault—a jukebox bar with wood and vinyl interior—at the beginning, but you don’t see the rape until the end. Most of the movie takes place in a courtroom, and the rape scene is the gauzy, dreamlike flashback finale. I watch gawky-eyed. I tell someone the next day the scene was fifteen minutes long, although a quick google told me it was actually only about four. It felt longer. I mean it felt endless. It was really graphic, up on a pinball machine. Was that necessary? How could that have been necessary? I earnestly search for an answer to this question.
The 1988 Washington Post review is somewhat sympathetic to the film’s premise—that a woman who is not a virginal saint could actually have been raped—but it quickly qualifies, its outreached hand only extends so far: “Face it. No women in her right mind would have gone into that bar and done her impression of a Vanity video. But Sarah's lack of good sense isn't on trial here.” The review and others like it lead me to believe that the scene was actually—I cringe to say—justified. That there existed a set of mainstream cultural circumstances so naive as to justify it. So naive, because the most compelling question the film must ask is, did it really happen? Did it really happen as much as she says it happened? And the answer it has to give is, yes, it did, look.
In February I wake up about three times nightly. Every wake-up is marked by bite-sized inputs and outputs of narrative: I keep my phone by my pillow, and I wake up and immediately either type out a thought into my Notes app or open some morsel of information from the outside world. These notes were usually some tiny feminist outrage, some morbid rumination on the state of womanhood. When these would come, I greet a familiar old frustration. Shouldn’t I be sleeping, or at least, shouldn’t I be thinking about more interesting things?
And then there is the background-droning hope for the arrival on my screen of a small delight, or a life-changing update, or something in between. The #MeToo posts arrived this way, and a sprinkling of allegations dotted fall and winter wake-ups. At Harvard, the news came slower, but inevitably the e-mails about Dominguez, the tenured professor of Government accused of decades of harassment, arrived in my inbox in March.
My friend tells me that she tries to read the Chronicle of Higher Education story that recounted all the allegations, but she had to stop. “It just scrolled forever.” I understand. I have wondered about this for a long time—these laundry lists, this infinite scroll. The literal spreadsheet.
I used to wonder about it on the personal level, about the value of carrying around a perpetually growing mental laundry list of instances of harassment and assault in my own life. Huffington Post listicles say things like, “When I was twelve, a man shouted X at me out of a car window, and when I was fourteen, a man grabbed Y, and so on forever...” and this is all legitimate, but has never failed to make me think, “I have this list too, and it’s boring!” I feel that each acquisition is meaningless, that one or four instances should have driven home the point, but I keep collecting like all collections. Like seashells. In the best moments, when it seems like there is something to be gleaned from pain, like tokens of an interesting life. Have I not lived so much?
Now I wonder at the group level about what it means for the culture to acquire this perpetually amassing laundry list of allegations, via #MeToo and beyond, that no one really seems sure what to do with.
It’s not that I’m afraid that a massive onslaught of allegations will lead to desensitization; it’s just that I wonder what the effects of overloading our sensitivities are. The amorphous concept of “knowing the truth” seems valuable enough, but when I try to follow this thread, it’s not clear where this “knowing” translates into societal action.
And there is the question of how we can possibly see something so large, so slow. How do you tell a 35-year story? The article is an attempt to condense time. A beating, a bomb, a bullet shocks—what if the same amount is harm is inflicted over decades, in smaller instances that go unreported, or when reported, go discounted; if the potency of violence is so diluted across time that it becomes unrecognizable as such? A dirty cloth stretched so far that its fibers become invisible, or simply look like a filter, like a part of the scenery.
I do have a favorite story of male violence to tell. It’s about this time when I’m working on a farm, and a man comes into my room in this isolated farmhouse. It’s approximately one in the morning, and he’s holding a knife of a foot and a half. He stands over me for a minute, then enters my closet. I dash for the bathroom and lock myself in. He paces in front of the bathroom door until about 6 a.m., then departs.
It’s my favorite story to tell because people are willing to listen to it, mainly; because it’s exciting and fits into many contexts. I have learned that there is not room to publicly tell these stories in the way you might tell a friend the next morning. Stories must be fine-tuned and well-packaged. The farm story circumnavigates gendered violence just enough to drive home the sentiment, “Look at just how much fear we live with! Look at how much danger we are constantly in!” but does not barrage the listener with the nitty gritty of sex and power. It is, in essence, a good story; it holds apparent value other than being a story of gendered violence.
In January, when I finally meet up with the friend who has asked to meet up to discuss what happened between us at the weekend’s party, it is something of a failed conversation. Everything feels off a notch. Whatever I say, he misunderstands slightly. (I had spoken with a female friend in preparation, and everything I said to her felt so intuitive to communicate. I didn’t have to speak too long before she knew exactly what I meant.) But this conversation demands explicitness. and I can’t find the words. I leave thinking of how every story lands differently on different ears.
Narratives of sexual violence fill the public air these days like gnats in summer, but I do still find them fairly invisible in life here. If assault stories made up a music scene, we’d have a dead one, or at least an underground one. I’m always dumbfounded by how quickly, upon walking through the gates of the Yard, the noise of outside traffic is muffled. Instant quiet. It can be nice, in the most unproductive way. I won’t say I have not imagined, one newsless morning, waking up to silence.
— Magazine writer Eva K. Rosenfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @EvaKRosenfeld. This is the fourth and final installment of her column, The Girls Want To Be With The Girls, which explores female communities on campus.